The girl with a mysterious past but a colourful future

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LATER this year a seven foot tall, unpainted, unidentified ship’s figurehead will be hoisted by crane out of the moat at the Seaford Museum Martello Tower and taken to Dartmouth to be restored and repainted by Richard Hunter, the country’s leading figurehead expert and restorer.

At the moment the figurehead, temporarily named Phoebe, stands at the bottom of the museum stairs in a dark corner where she is eclipsed by the nearby colourful figurehead of The Peruvian, beautifully restored and repainted some years ago by Seafordian David Taylor.

It is to be hoped that Phoebe will be back, fully resplendent, for the spring opening of the Museum in 2013.

In the meantime researchers at Seaford Museum are trying to find out more about Phoebe. Current investigations have revealed that in 1962 Mrs Doris Pilkington of Litlington saw two figureheads in a council shed at Brooklyn Road, close to the old Seaford gasworks.

One of these was Phoebe, the other was a small figure which was disintegrating. Thanks to Mrs Pilkington’s daughter, Penny Ellis, a letter has been found from the Seaford Urban District Council Engineer and Surveyor, Mr C G Thompson, dated August 1962, replying to Mrs Pilkington’s request to have the figurehead. He warns her of the figure’s poor condition but says that she can have it and that there is no question of any charge. The figurehead (nicknamed Phoebe by the Pilkingtons) was then stored in a barn at their home, Barn Cottage, Litlington. She was later removed to the gardens at the nearby Tea Rooms at the request of the manager, Mr Bond. She stood there for many years until Mrs Pilkington offered her to Seaford Museum in 1974. The museum was then based at West House. Some time later she reached the newly opened Martello Tower and was stripped of her paint, no doubt because the wood was in poor condition and needed treatment. When David Taylor restored The Peruvian figurehead in 1992 he also stabilised Phoebe, but time and funds ran out for her to be further restored. The difference between the original painted figure and the anonymous brown statue now in situ makes one look forward to her transformation.

One possibility is that the figure originally stood at Telsemaure, the large house on the corner of Dane Road and the sea front that was the home of the Crook family. A photograph of the garden shows some figureheads, but not Phoebe. Telsemaure was demolished in 1937. Mr Charles Rose, however, who was one of the original founders of Seaford Museum, thinks that the figureheads in the Brooklyn Road Depot came from one of the large houses with long gardens running down to Marine Parade between Edinburgh Road and Claremont Road. During the war the house was left empty and the figures were taken away by the council for safekeeping.

Phoebe can be seen to be holding a diamond at her breast. A ship called Diamond was wrecked off Seaford in 1869. Being a square rigged 3 masted vessel, she would have been of the right size to have had such a large figurehead. Is it fanciful to think that this may have been her original ship? To find her vessel would not only greatly increase her value but satisfyingly complete her maritime story.

Can you help? Do you remember Mr Thompson of the then Seaford Council and is his daughter still in the area? Does anyone recall seeing Phoebe in the house or garden at West House in the mid 1970s? Does her style or clothing suggest her date of carving and her country of origin? Any scrap of information, however seemingly insignificant, would be appreciated. Going back so many years is difficult and memories of these times are fading. But when Phoebe is hoisted back into the Martello Tower next spring, wouldn’t it be good to have discovered this splendid figure’s full history?

Please contact me or Seaford Museum (01323 89822) if you can assist with any information. My thanks to Diana Crook for her generosity in funding this special project and for her research which has resulted in this item.

Visit the Martello Tower to see Phoebe before she sets off for her make-over. The museum is open tomorrow (Saturday) from 2.30pm to 4.30pm and on Sunday from 11am to 1pm and again from 2.30pm to 4.30pm.